Macarena Cordiviola
artista audiovisual
Macarena Cordiviola














































Isla Martín García: the island which is almost a person
By Macarena Cordiviola
Published in The Argentimes
July 2007, Buenos Aires

It was 1512 when Juan Díaz de Solís became ‘Spain Principal Pilot’ after Américo Vespucio –the man after whom América is named - died. Solís’ mission was to draw the boundaries of Spanish and Portuguese territories in the New World. Therefore, he sailed through ‘Mar Dulce’ -as he named Río de la Plata and, in 1516 he found a very old piece of stone: a granite isle lost in the middle of an enormous ‘sweet sea’. It was the first piece of land ever touched by the Spaniards in the Río de la Plata.

Those were tough times. Many crewmembers died of malaria and other diseases, even on board, without touching land. That was the case of Martín García, the ship’s storekeeper, who died in February 1516. Solís named that isolated island after him and decided to explore the place. Most of the men, and even the captain himself, clashed with the native charrúas and were killed. Others simply died there. Survivors flew back to Spain and nobody set foot on the island again until 1762.

Obviously, Isla Martín García is much older than this. It belongs to the Pre-Cambrian Brasilian Massif – a rock formation that runs deep inside the earth, and extends from Argentina to Brazil – and has been there for the last 1,800 million years.

History went through this place and left marks. Nature did so too. And the combination gave birth to a bizarre spot. The isle is so unique that it has a nickname: ‘IMG’.

Let’s go through IMG and explore its attractions in detail.

A quick summary of IMG’s geography

Isla Martín García is located where Río Paraná and Río Uruguay flow into Río de la Plata – 33km away from Tigre port, Argentina, and only 3.5km from Uruguay’s coast. The granite island is also part of Paraná Delta – a group of islands with alluvial soils. As a result Martín García is composed of a crystalline basement, with soil and sand dunes inland. An interesting mix! 

As it is made of stone, the island was quarried for stones that, later on, were used to pave Buenos Aires streets.

The Delta islands grew 50 metres per year thanks to sediment accretion between 1852 and 1990, which means Martín García has become less and less isolated as time goes by. The issue gets quite complicated as everything happens in the border between Argentina and Uruguay. Nature should respect political treaties and stay quiet.

Nowadays, less than 200 people inhabit the isle; however, none of them own an acre of land: everything belongs to the state. This territory is ruled by the Navy and the provincial government, which makes Isla Martín García a controversial site. 

A selection of excerpts from IMG history

It is really complex but let’s try to cut a long story short.

When the Spaniards came back in 1762, Isla Martín García was turned into a small stronghold and also into a prison - the first one in Argentina’s history. The jail worked from 1765 to 1957.

Health care and scientific research were important issues on IMG agenda during those times. From 1868 to 1915, a leper colony was based on the island. The scientific research done was very important; and many buildings were created during this period, which means the island features an art-nouveau style.

Martín García played a major role in many wars along the 19th century. Its strategic position was essential during the Argentina-Brazil War, which lasted from 1820 to 1825, in which Uruguay declared independence from Brazil and became part of the United Provinces of the Río de la Plata. Later, the positioning of the island was also important during the War of the Triple Alliance, which took place between 1865 and 1870, when Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil united against Paraguay, then a well-developed country, and won an overwhelming victory.

As it was used as a military prison, IMG often received elite prisoners who lived with their families in beautiful houses and, sometimes, even brought secretaries and doctors. Four Argentine presidents have spent a time in this prison-paradise, but not all had a nice stay.

Hipólito Yrigoyen, the first president to be overthrown in a military coup, came and went to the island repeatedly until he died in 1933.

Marcelo T. de Alvear, a Radical Party member like Yrigoyen, but also his main opponent, stayed a short period in Martín García, until he was sent into exile. Alvear met IMG in 1932.

General Juan Domingo Perón was imprisoned on 13th October 1945. Just four days later workers went to Plaza de Mayo demanding the general be freed. They got what they wanted: Perón was released to become soon president of Argentina.
Arturo Frondizi, the third president overthrown by a coup d’état was another VIP guest on the island, visiting in 1962. Despite the prison having been closed since 1957, Frondizi was given the privilege of spending some time there.

Martín García seems to have a dark and a light side of the moon
For instance, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento – president of Argentina from 1868 to 1874 – dreamed that the island would one day be the ‘capital of the United States of South America’.

In 1895, the famous Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío went to rest and recover from an illness on the island. He wrote the poem ‘Marcha Triunfal’ inspired by IMG’s history and beauty:
“… Suns of the red summer,
Snow and winds from the cold winter,
Night, hail
And hate and death, as the homeland is immortal…”

Argentina’s most famous writer Jorge Luis Borges spent a summer in Martín García during his childhood. Once he declared to ‘Gente’ magazine: “I always remember my visits to the quarries.” Those quarries in which some prisoners worked, chipping to pave Buenos Aires city, could well have provided inspiration for Borges’ fiction.

Nature, architecture and miscellaneous

Have you watched ‘Apocalypse Now’?

One feels like Marlon Brandon in some northern spots of the island. In ‘Barrio Chino’, there is a bamboo wood that hides walls, rooms and ruins. Nature has devoured the buildings and has taken power again. Furthermore, telluric places where nature grows from the brick and concrete cracks, bending iron bars, surrounding doors and windows, can be found in the centre of the town or at the campsite. 

It is necessary to clarify that Barrio Chino is not named after the famous movie ‘China Town’ or eastern immigrants. The word ‘chino’ is a way of referring to low class people: workers, prostitutes, salesmen. Such people lived and gathered around the harbour on the island, and therefore the area was called ‘Barrio Chino’.

This northern zone – the barrio, the old harbour, the parks where Uruguay’s and Argentina’s common monuments are – is a mix of jungle and wood. Big white birds sing and fly over the tops of beautiful trees. Silence sounds wonderful here. It is a perfect place to do bird-watching. Hundreds of species live in the island and many others come and go: all kinds of swallows and ducks and herons... the list keeps on going.

Martín García harbours all kind of plants and trees, both native and exotic, thanks to humidity and fertile soil.

The coast is not exactly the river-beach one dreams of. It is beautiful, though, and quite magical. The spot for swimming is next to the Water Pump Building, getting into the forest till brownish-sand sticks to your feet. The sky, the horizon, an immense mass of water: violet-brown-grey-blue, paradise. And every paradise has its serpent, here resting in fallen nests and piles of leaves. Watch out!

Urban daily life goes on in the south-western area. The small town has a grocery that sells meat, vegetables and fruit, a couple of private houses, historical buildings where hens walk round, a restaurant with home-made food, a bakery famous for pan dulce – a traditional Christmas pastry. All the buildings have gardens full of flowers. On the way to the new port is another well-designed square that leads to the amazing 1910 art-nouveau theatre. 

The main square is surrounded by a church, a museum, a school, a hospital and the old ruined jail. Just a few walls stand; a prison of bushes, trees, grass, flowers, creepers, mosquitoes, ants, worms… A real spectacle!

Martín Garcia’s coast is well protected by several cannons all over the island. It is quite particular walking around while crossing old weapons. There is also a landing strip, built in 1956 on the west side of the island, running from one end to the other.

IMG is a Nature and History Reserve and can be visited either on a one-day excursion, or for the weekend. It is possible to stay either at the campsite or, if you want a slightly more luxury option, at Cacciola hostel. You can get there and away by either the Cacciola ship or by private plane.

Isla Martín García is a very special, mysterious and controversial place, offering an enormous variety of things to enjoy, letting your imagination run free.

And, so as to leave things open, one last comment: IMG has been named as The Devil’s Island.